'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend': Rachel Bloom Talks Mental Health and Writing a New Theme Song Every Season
The star and creator — nominated for Emmys for best original music and lyrics and best main title theme music — opens up about the joy of tap dance breaks and why the musical comedy series' 157 songs were a "prequel" to the show's final moment.
Everybody is singing her song. The CW's musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ends with the central character, Rebecca Bunch, portrayed by series creator Rachel Bloom, telling her loved ones, "This is a song I wrote," and readying herself to play the piano. Over the series' run, Bloom, Adam Schlesinger and Jack Dolgen penned 157 songs, all acting as a "prequel" to that one moment, Bloom says.
One thread connecting song to song was Rebecca's mental health struggles, from finding relief at receiving "A Diagnosis" of borderline personality disorder in season three to discovering that "Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal" in season four.
Picking up two Emmy nods for original music and lyrics for "Antidepressants" and for original main title theme music for season four's "Meet Rebecca," Bloom shares with The Hollywood Reporter how the recognition "feels really cumulative to us."
Rebecca Bunch went through quite a journey since she dumped her pills in the pilot and took a chance on moving to West Covina to find love and happiness. Is that what the show is really about, her trying to find her happiness?
Oh yeah. The show was always about one person's quest for who they are inside. For me, it was always about, how do you find out — not who you are, because that's an ongoing journey — but how do you get in touch with your inner happiness and then actually execute that? How do you marry the inside with the outside?
That brings us to the original song "Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal." A very fun song and also very to the point.
It's very on the nose. (Laughs.)
Why was Rebecca resistant to taking antidepressants for so long?
As Dr. Akopian [Rebecca's psychiatrist, played by Michael Hyatt] says in season one, Rebecca's doctor in New York was a quack. He overprescribed her and zonked her out. You see this all the time. I have a very good psychiatrist who calls himself pretty old-school in that he combines talk therapy with prescription. But now a lot of psychiatrists really make their trade — if they want to make a lot of money — with just prescribing, prescribing, prescribing, prescribing. So some of them theoretically don't get to know the person as well. I think Rebecca says they gave her the "standard high-power lawyer package." It just made her numb, so she was hesitant. There was a bit of an old-school philosophy of "I thought I could do this on my own." When she actually got into therapy, there was this pride of "I'm getting better, and it's just me getting better. I don't need to quit by taking a pill." That's something that I used to think before I saw a psychiatrist. I thought, "You should be able to suck it up and do it yourself." No, that's not how brain chemistry works.
Mental health is a throughline on the show. Where did inspiration strike for you, Jack Dolgen and Adam Schlesinger to write "Antidepressants"?
Rebecca was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in season three. It occurred to us that at some point she'll probably need to supplement it with medication, even though the whole point of her diagnosis is that borderline is a hard, long road. We'd also heard from fans saying how anti-medication she was in the past, so we wanted to address it in season four. We have this plotline when she was finally going to go on meds in the episode at Raging Waters [a California water park] before "Antidepressants," and it was kind of a lighter story originally. So, we actually did a massive re-break of the episode, where Raging Waters, with all of its happy sunniness, ushers her into this rapid decline. But it ends on a positive note. Not the way you'd think from a Raging Waters episode, but with her taking antidepressants.
Why did you want to make sure you approached the choice for her to go on antidepressants in this way?
Jack Dolgen, who directed the episode, and I have both had our own personal journeys with our mental health. He's talked pretty openly about how he used to have suicidal ideation, and with him, [the approach] was a combination of meds and therapy. But when we got to episode 13, it felt like we breezed by her decision. That was a big deal. We wanted to discuss why she hadn't before, but there wasn't really a place for it. Then separately we needed some more songs. Aline [Brosh McKenna, the showrunner] handed me the outline and said, "Where does a song jump out to you?" Originally Rebecca was in Rebetzel's talking to people about how she's on an antidepressant now and she's a little ashamed. People in Rebetzel's start chiming in: "I'm on one, too. It's not a big deal." I was like, "Aline, you just gave us a musical number. That is the most musical number of musical numbers."
Why did the song shift to Dr. Akopian (Michael Hyatt) singing it?
It felt good to write something that felt like it was us talking to the audience, in a way, through Dr. Akopian. This song is so incredibly message-y, but it felt like in season four we'd finally earned our ability to do a song that walked the line of sincerity with some jokes in it. Rather than people chiming in in a cheesy, almost 1950s musical theater way, it became more of Dr. Akopian ushering Rebecca into the magical world of reality where if you're ashamed of being on an antidepressant, like, fucking everyone is on some sort of antidepressant right now. Which I happen to think is a good thing. I think it really helps people. A lot of people have serotonin deficiencies. I don't think it's a cop-out.
Was La La Land an inspiration for the vibrant colors the characters wear and the jazzy tune?
Oh yeah, the idea of an alternate version of Los Angeles where everyone's super happy and in these bright colors was definitely an inspiration. La La Land takes place in this slightly sunnier, jazzier version of reality. We've done a lot of things harkening to old school theater, Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] numbers. But what's the new world of sincere film musicals? We wanted to find our take on that group sincerity.
Who thought of the tap dance break?
That was me. The song process on every song really differed because it depended where we were at in the process. In this situation, we had had a hiatus, so I actually had the time to sit down and do the first pass of this song and the script myself. I had the opportunity to sit down and wrap my head around it. Even if someone's taking the lead on a song, Adam, Jack and I always would share with the other songwriters. This was an opportunity where I could hand them a fully formed idea. Jack had some great ideas in the lyrics for the song. I had a melody and some chords, and then Adam elevated it. But the structure of the song was basically what I handed them, which was a joy because that was rare so late in the season that I got to do that. That was my favorite part of the process.
You're also nominated for original main title theme music. How did you come up with the "Meet Rebecca" opener, and why did you decide to do a new theme song every season?
Whereas I took the lead on "Antidepressants," Jack took the lead on the season four theme song. I have a residency at [L.A. music and comedy club] Largo, and I just did a show where we went through all the rejected theme songs for season three. Season three was a very, very traumatic experience. We could not agree on a theme song, because it's a really difficult season. There was a lot of plot propulsion, and it's hard to encapsulate a propulsive season like that into a theme song, especially when the reason the theme songs change is because the story Rebecca is telling herself each season changes. The first season she was telling herself, "I'm not in West Covina for Josh." The second season she's like, "OK, well, I'm just a girl in love." The third season ended up with her grappling with this idea of "Do I want to be crazy or not?" It was a season of confusion. In the fourth season, she kind of knows who she is, she kind of doesn't. We thought, "Let's go back to an actual TV-feeling theme," which we hadn't done since the first season. Then Jack busted out "Meet Rebecca. She's the coolest girl in the world. Wait, wrong Rebecca." Which was so great. That "Wait, wrong Rebecca" thing was the key to the theme song. The point was always to say, "Look at this perfect Rebecca. She has problems, too." There is no perfect Rebecca. There is no one who can be summed up into a theme song. Everyone is incredibly complex and multidimensional, and Other Rebecca — or Debra, of course, as we learn her name is in that first episode — is incredibly messed up, more so than Rebecca.
The show ends with Rebecca saying, "This is a song I wrote," and we've seen her come so far by that point. As you said, nobody knows who they are and she's still figuring it out. But how do you hope she's doing now on her own journey?
In a really cool way, I think she's doing well. I think she's generally happy and the great thing is I don't know. I've talked to other people who have written TV shows and especially other people who have written and then played those characters. It felt like this person existed and then a bunch of writers came in and fucked up her life and made her do a bunch of weird decisions, but she's OK. She's better for it. It's like we were her parents. And now we've set her free, and I truly don't know where she's at. With songwriting, it's her reaching down and thinking, "OK, what do I think about the world? What's my authentic voice?" That parallels any writer's journey in deciding to become a writer. What do I want to say about the world? And what do I want to say about myself? In addition to just living her truth. But we kind of hint in that last episode at Oh, maybe she and Greg [Serrano, played by Skylar Astin in season three] have a future." But I think there's a world where she got a weird songwriting scholarship at this school in Paris and now went to Paris for a couple of years. And then she randomly met up with Nathaniel [played by Scott Michael Foster] in Paris or they both had a thing in Barcelona and they got back together. I don't know! And it's kind of wonderful. Josh is the one person that she really does flat out turn down. I don't think there is a future in this universe for her and Josh. Although I will say, whenever I've taken those fan-made BuzzFeed quizzes like, "Which Crazy Ex-Girlfriend character should you be with?" I always get Josh. So, I think there's a world where she and Josh would have worked had she not moved to West Covina to stalk him. There's a sweetness and an empathy that she really took away and internalized. But yeah, I don't know. That last song she sings is kind of the unsingable song. There was a version where the whole tag of the series was gonna be you finally hear the song that she writes, like, "West Covina, California." Then it's like, "Is a fun place to be. I like being here." She'd be a terrible songwriter because she just started. But we didn't want to say that. First of all, going back to West Covina didn't necessarily make sense because that was a song rooted in delusion and that's also a comedy song. I don't think Rebecca Bunch becomes a comedy songwriter. She's not suddenly writing pastiches of her own life. The whole point is that last moment is a beginning. Her playing the piano with happiness, this whole show was a prequel to that, whatever "that" is.
There's magic in that mystery that you don't know what the song is that she writes, but you know she's gonna be OK.
Yeah, exactly. The song itself was never the point. It was the point that she's happy. We went back and forth like, "Should we have the song?" You know you never see Maris from Frasier. I don't think you should ever hear this song because I don't know exactly the journey that Rebecca went on through that year. In order to write that song correctly, you really have to take a long time and internalize, "OK, what is she discovering throughout that year? What is she learning?" To figure that out and really explore that in the last five minutes of a series finale, I don't know if we would have done it justice.
Before the encore of "Heavy Boobs," you closed the concert special with the "Antidepressants" song. Why was making that the finale number important to you?
At the time that we came up with the concert special, that episode had maybe just aired. Because the concert special had all these iconic songs, we were like, "OK, we're light on season four. What have we written in season four that's going to be iconic?" At one point we thought of maybe "Love's Not a Game," but we didn't know how that was going to be yet, and it's plotty. So we took a swing, thinking "Antidepressants" would be a really impactful song, and there's the huge tap number. We hadn't done group tap in the show. Ever. So many people wanted to tap and so many people can tap. That was another box to check off, too. And it went with "A Diagnosis" so well. The amount of talent in that cast was just staggering. If you watch, it's me, Donna Lynne [Champlin, who plays Paula], David Hull [White Josh], Scott Michael Foster, Gabrielle Ruiz [Valencia] — like, so many people can tap. People tap dancing en masse is just delightful.
What other songs are you most proud of from the final season?
I'm so happy to have had any hand in "Don't Be a Lawyer." "No One Else Is Singing My Song" is great. I love the "Cell Block Tango" song "What's Your Story?" because that's my holding up a mirror to fellow musical theater dorks, like, "This is what you seem like. This is what we all seem like when we try to put the world into these narrow, easy points of view that we've learned." I'm proud of "The Cringe." I've always wanted to write a "Monster Mash"-like song about real life. Honestly I'm proud of every single song in that season. I could go on and on and on. I'm proud of "Eleven O'Clock" because there was a really huge journey on it. And you can see the journey we went through. We made a documentary about filming the final episode called Oh My God I Think It's Over and amazingly Katie Hyde caught the moment where we got the visual concept for "Eleven O'Clock." I love that that's on film because I will always remember that. I could talk for 20 minutes about each and every song in this entire television series.
How do you feel about receiving these nominations for the show's final season?
Adam, Jack and I wrote 157 songs together. Even if we'd been nominated for a song that I just wrote, or that Adam just wrote, or that Jack just wrote, it's such a cumulative award to us. I know that's not the way the Academy sees it, but every song is inextricably linked to the song before it and the song after it. It's a body of work. Both of these nominations are really special. It's going to be great to party with Adam and Jack one last time and really celebrate with them, like, "Holy shit. I can't believe we did this together."
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.